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Payee program helps those who can't manage funds

Marian is 83 years old, lives alone and recently has shown signs of memory loss and isolation. Her uncashed Social Security checks have been stacked in a drawer for the past nine months. Joe is a 40-year-old mental-health patient who lives on his disability income. His illness often causes him to spend his limited funds on useless purchases and even to give money to others.

Marian and Joe are in need of assistance in managing their funds to ensure that the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are consistently provided.

In fact, the Social Security Administration, as one of several sources of governmental income, has regulations that direct claims representatives to find a representative payee for beneficiaries who are legally incapacitated and under guardianship; physically or mentally incapable of managing their affairs; younger than age 18; or in the case of Supplemental Security Income, drug addicts or alcoholics.

Sometimes referred to as a substitute payee, the representative payee is a person or organization authorized to receive and manage benefits on behalf of an individual deemed incapable of doing so for himself or herself. Income from Social Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Civil Service and Railroad Retirement pensions may be sent to the payee who is required to use the benefits for the best interests of the beneficiary and who has the authority to decide how the funds will be used.

Figures from 1987 show the scope of the payee need. In that year, 10 percent of all Social Security beneficiaries and 26 percent of Supplemental Security Income recipients had a payee. About two-thirds of these individuals were children, and the rest were elderly and disabled adults.

Because payees are difficult to find in many communities, especially for the homeless who often have no family or friends to assist, it is common practice for benefits to be suspended until a payee is located.

Several years ago, in response to the need for available individuals to serve in this capacity, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and Legal Counsel for the Elderly in Washington, D.C., developed a model payee project using trained volunteers. Now available in several states, volunteers are recruited, often from AARP membership, and provided training developed through the Washington model. With no age restrictions for clients, the volunteer is matched with a compatible beneficiary and applies to become the payee.

Since 1988, under the direction of the Area Agency on Aging, a payee project was established that serves Pinellas and Pasco counties. Referrals come from social service agencies, Social Security, Veterans Affairs, among others, for a payee to assist. The primary requirement is that a potential client have a case manager or similar individual who can assume responsibility for coordination of services to the beneficiary. The local project has an interdisciplinary advisory board that has policy-making authority for the payee program.

Legal Counsel for the Elderly in Washington oversees the project and reviews all bank statements and canceled checks for each case managed by the volunteer payee. Each volunteer is bonded as an added protection for the beneficiary. The payee project may be seen as a pre-guardianship alternative that occupies a legitimate place on the service continuum for frail elderly and disabled adults.

A payee for Marian and Joe could ensure that their monthly income is protected and used to pay for food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

In coordination with other community-based services, Marian and Joe will be provided necessary assistance in the least restrictive manner that will promote their maximum independence, personal dignity and self-esteem.

For information, contact the Area Agency on Aging at 577-5151.

Dale J. Hyland has been in social services for 15 years, and is a human-services consultant in Pinellas County. My View columnists, invited to contribute for a year on a regular basis, write their own views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.